Facebook has changed its story about how many teenagers used its Research app. When news first broke, Facebook said that less than 5 percent of the mobile app users were teenagers. On Thursday, TechCrunch reported that it:
"... has obtained Facebook’s unpublished February 21st response to questions about the Research program in a letter from Senator Mark Warner, who wrote to CEO Mark Zuckerberg that “Facebook’s apparent lack of full transparency with users – particularly in the context of ‘research’ efforts – has been a source of frustration for me.”
In the response from Facebook’s VP of US public policy Kevin Martin, the company admits that (emphasis ours) “At the time we ended the Facebook Research App on Apple’s iOS platform, less than 5 percent of the people sharing data with us through this program were teens. Analysis shows that number is about 18 percent when you look at the complete lifetime of the program, and also add people who had become inactive and uninstalled the app.”
Three U.S. Senators sent a letter to Facebook on February 7th demanding answers. The TechCrunch article outlined other items in Facebook's changing story: i) it originally claimed its Research App didn't violate Apple's policies and we later learned it did; and ii) it claimed to have removed the app, but Apple later forced that removal.
What to make of Facebook's changing story? Again from TechCrunch:
"The contradictions between Facebook’s initial response to reporters and what it told Warner, who has the power to pursue regulation of the the tech giant, shows Facebook willingness to move fast and play loose with the truth... Facebook’s attempt to minimize the issue in the wake of backlash exemplifies the trend of of the social network’s “reactionary” PR strategy that employees described to BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac. The company often views its scandals as communications errors rather than actual product screwups or as signals of deep-seeded problems with Facebook’s respect for privacy..."
Kudos to TechCrunch on more excellent reporting. And, there's more regarding children. Fortune reported:
"A coalition of 17 privacy and children’s organizations has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook for allowing children to make unauthorized in-app purchases... The coalition filed a complaint with the FTC on Feb. 21 over Facebook doing little to stop children from buying virtual items through games on its service without parental permission and, in some cases, without realizing those items cost money... Internal memos show that between 2010 and 2014, Facebook encouraged children, some as young as five-years old, to make purchases using their parents’ credit card information, the complaint said. The company then refused to refund parents..."
Not good. Facebook's changing story makes it difficult, or impossible, to trust anything its executives say. Perhaps, the entertainer Lady Gaga said it best:
"Social media is the toilet of the internet."
Facebook's data breaches, constant apologizing, and shifting stories seem to confirm that. Now, it is time for government regulators to act -- and not with wimpy fines.